Beyond Strong and Weak: Towards a Typology of Open Access

Over the past week or so there has been a flurry of posts about ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ open access, including the following:

Peter Suber and Stevan Harnad both agree:

The term “open access” is now widely used in at least two senses. For some, “OA” literature is digital, online, and free of charge. It removes price barriers but not permission barriers. For others, “OA” literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of unnecessary copyright and licensing restrictions. It removes both price barriers and permission barriers. It allows reuse rights which exceed fair use.

There are two good reasons why our central term became ambiguous. Most of our success stories deliver OA in the first sense, while the major public statements from Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin (together, the BBB definition of OA) describe OA in the second sense.

As you know, Stevan Harnad and I have differed about which sense of the term to prefer –he favoring the first and I the second. What you may not know is that he and I agree on nearly all questions of substance and strategy, and that these differences were mostly about the label. While it may seem that we were at an impasse about the label, we have in fact agreed on a solution which may please everyone. At least it pleases us.

We have agreed to use the term “weak OA” for the removal of price barriers alone and “strong OA” for the removal of both price and permission barriers. To me, the new terms are a distinct improvement upon the previous state of ambiguity because they label one of those species weak and the other strong. To Stevan, the new terms are an improvement because they make clear that weak OA is still a kind of OA.

On this new terminology, the BBB definition describes one kind of strong OA. A typical funder or university mandate provides weak OA. Many OA journals provide strong OA, but many others provide weak OA.

Furthermore, Peter Suber adds:

As soon as we move beyond the removal of price barriers to the removal of permission barriers, we enter the range of strong OA. Hence, an article with a CC-NC license is strong OA because it allows some copying and redistribution beyond fair use (even if it doesn’t allow all copying and redistribution). My own preference is still for the CC-BY license, but we shouldn’t speak as if CC-NC were not strong OA or as if there were just one kind of strong OA.

According to this schema, a cost free publication counts as weak open access, and a publication licensed under a CC-NC license counts as strong open access. Stevan Harnad agrees with the distinction but suggests the need for ‘value-neutral’ terms to describe it – suggesting ‘basic’ and ‘full’.

Its worth adding to this discussion that there is also Open Definition compliant open access, which I understand is equivalent to BBB open access and which is more permissive than ‘strong’ or ‘full’ open access. As we blogged a couple of weeks back – anything with the SPARC Europe Seal will be open access in this sense.

As Peter Murray-Rust comments:

Open Source has the OSI which determines whether ot not a given licence is OS. Open Knowledge after only a short time of volunteers has the OKF and has an agreed definition and a list of conformant licences.

Scholarly publications, as literary works, constitute knowledge and hence are covered by the OKD. A journal, monograph or any other publication can still be ‘open as in the OKD’ as with other forms of knowledge. Debates about open access aside, demarcating between knowledge that is ‘open’ and ‘closed’ is precisely what the OKD is there for!

It will be interesting to see what emerges as the new classificatory scheme for open access, and where OKD compliant publications sit on the spectrum. Perhaps these will be called ‘OKD/BBB compliant open access’ journals, or suchlike.

2 thoughts on “Beyond Strong and Weak: Towards a Typology of Open Access”

  1. I hesitate to use the term “BBB definition” when we’re talking about details. “BBB” is usually shorthand for “also removes permissions barriers”. But since we’re discussing details, we should be cognizant that the BBB statements actually contain small but significant variances on how they define OA. I think Peter Suber has written about this in one of his past newsletter, but I don’t have time to find the link right now. IIRC, one of the statements mentions commercial rights (whether pro or con, I don’t recall) while the others are silent. I also think one or two state an author’s right to attribution while one or two are silent on this point.

  2. Gavin, you’re absolutely right that there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘BBB definition’ — each of those ‘declarations’ said something slightly different and was focused on promoting OA not defining what it was. When we first launched the Open (Knowledge) Definition our explicit motivation was the absence of clear definition of openness in relation to general information and content (including, potentially, scientific material) — in particular one which included a clear emphasis on use and reuse.

    It was noteworthy that, at the time, Peter Suber was not convinced of the need for the OKD as he felt that it was equivalent to the BBB ‘definition’ of OA (perhaps with some differences regarding emphasis on reuse). Specifically he wrote:

    Bottom line, I’m not persuaded that OK needs to be different from OA except by adding modifiability. The common ground of the three BBB definitions, for example, as I summarize it in my OA Overview http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm, is not confusing and not different from what you seem to have in mind for OK –except that you want to permit charging for access to OK content and you want to permit modifiability. As I’ve said, I don’t see the need to charge for access except for optional enhancements to the basic content. Modifiability is a significant difference, which is why I suggested a basic approach of OA plus modifiability.

    At the time the OKD (like the Open Source Definition) explicitly excluded restrictions on access and reuse stemming from e.g. NC provisions. Obviously, there may have been some confusion at the time about this, or there has been some revision in views since, but it now seems clear that an ‘Open Access’ work may have NC-restrictions on its redistribution and reuse and, therefore, that open access material may not be open in terms of the Open (Knowledge) Definition.

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